Huntsville city council delays vote on hands- free device proposal

By Paul Gattis

The Huntsville city council on Thursday, after an hour of discussion, tabled a proposal that would outlaw a driver handling a cell phone.

The proposal came from Councilman David Little and would make it a primary offense, meaning that police could initiate a traffic stop if they observe a driver handling their phone while driving.

The majority of the discussion at the meeting came from concerns voiced by Councilman Devyn Keith, who said that the ordinance would put the onus on offender rather than police. Keith said that a citation could be issued and prosecuted solely on the word of the officer who gave the citation. Going to court to fight a citation should not be a nominal consideration, Keith said.

City Administrator John Hamilton acknowledged there could be issues with prosecution but that it would not be unlike other traffic violations that sometimes rely solely on the word of the police officer.

“Ultimately, the prosecutor and the judge and a jury have to make those kinds of decisions,” Hamilton said in response to Keith’s concerns. “So you’re correct that this is a very difficult ordinance to enforce … to the point of getting a conviction. It will be extremely challenging to prove beyond a reasonable doubt in a courtroom that someone did it. I don’t think there’s any doubt in anybody’s mind about the challenges of enforcement.”

Councilwoman Jennie Robinson proposed voting on the ordinance be postponed until the next council meeting on Sept. 28 with the opportunity to involve Huntsville police in the discussion. No representatives of the police department attended Thursday’s meeting.

Little said he has been working on the ordinance with the city’s legal and police departments since February. The councilman added that the proposal has the support of Huntsville police.

Little’s proposal prohibits a driver using a phone while driving unless it’s connected to a Bluetooth system or is on speakerphone mode or any other mechanism that would eliminate handling the phone itself. A first conviction would result in a $100 fine or imprisonment up to 10 days while a second conviction within two years of the first would be a $200 fine or imprisonment up to 30 days.

It would also beef up a new state law that only prohibits holding your phone while their vehicle “crosses in or out of a traffic lane without using a turn signal, the vehicle swerves, or the vehicle is otherwise operated in an impaired manner.” And it would strengthen the city’s current ordinance that only outlaws sending or receiving digital message such as emails or text messages. The prohibition also does not allow for police to initiate a traffic stop.